Behind the Scenes of Whip It

Behind the Scenes of Whip It
Whip It Review -
Ellen Page Whip It Interview -

Whip It
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The mix of WHIP IT's wry family comedy and raw roller derby setting drew a lot of attention in Hollywood and the rights were quickly picked up by executive producer Peter Douglas. At the same time, two filmmakers fell so madly in love with Bliss Cavendar's story it seemed they were destined to make it: Drew Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen, partners at Flower Films who acquired the rights to Cross' book Whip It. Juvonen and Drew Barrymore have produced ten films including DONNIE DARKO, FIFTY FIRST DATES, HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU and the CHARLIE'S ANGELS franchise. When Drew Barrymore encountered WHIP IT, the usual process began of searching for the perfect director. Lists were compiled, reels were watched and meetings were taken, but Drew Drew Barrymore seemed to have a different personal connection to this particular piece.

She was drawn to the action, the humor, the vibrant characters, but most of all by the chance to tell a galvanizing story about a young woman fighting to make her own way in the world - in a shocking and unlikely arena. "I literally had that aha moment, where I thought: 'I have to direct this; this is the film I have to start with,'" Drew Drew Barrymore says. "It felt like something I was practicing for my whole life. I took every little detail that I had ever seen and learned and experienced and soaked up -- whether it was a song I heard, a museum I went to or a person I met -- and I pictured it all as an emotional and cultural piggy bank. Then I took my piggy bank and broke it all over the floor for this film."

She continues: "There were three strong elements that I identified with. First, the mother-daughter struggle and the desire to be accepted for who you are in your family -- finding your tribe. Second, a very important element for me was that I related to a girl who, against all odds, finds her inner strength and believes she can do what boys do while staying true to herself. And finally, there is the idea that you can be your own hero, which is a huge theme throughout this movie."

Drew Drew Barrymore loved the humor in the contrast between Bliss's bold choices and her mother's traditionalism, but she completely rejected the idea of slipping into satire. She was too in love with all the characters, including Brooke Cavendar (Harden) and her fiercely defended beauty pageant obsession. "Some comedies take a sour tone on pageants but I didn't want that for this movie," she explains. "Bliss's mom honestly believes pageants are a way to get ahead in life, which they were when she was growing up. But the pageant world does make for a fantastic change when Bliss enters roller derby. There is such a perfect juxtaposition between the polished world of pageants and the 'express yourself' world of derby."

Meanwhile, Mandate Pictures had also become fervent fans of the completed script. "After reading such a fresh, heartwarming coming-of-age story and then sitting with Drew to hear her thoughts on how to bring this great script to life, it was clear that I had to make this movie and support Drew's vision in all ways possible," says Mandate President and executive producer Nathan Kahane "Drew brings so much raw talent and experience to the table, I had complete and utter confidence in her from the get-go. WHIP IT proved to be just the right film for her to step into those directing shoes."

Simultaneously, Drew Drew Barrymore invited Barry Mendel to come aboard to produce the film. In addition to having recently produced MUNICH, Mendel had also worked with directors Wes Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan and Joss Whedon on their early successes and lent direction to Drew Drew Barrymore's process. "Drew had very high ambitions - she wanted to make an unabashedly fun movie but to also go way beyond that in terms of both depth and style."

The two began by watching tons of movies, from documentaries to modern films to films from the '70s and '80s to find the inspiration for what would ultimately become the look and feel and tone of the screenplay and the film. They studied cinematographers, productions designers and various other artists to find the ingredients which felt right for the film. Most importantly, they worked hard on the script fleshing out the mother-daughter, friendship, team and romantic stories, getting ready for the chance to tell the story of these awesome young women.

"We aspired to escape the brightly-colored often overlit worlds of modern film comedies. We also wanted to get beyond the lightweight quippiness of most modern movies about young people. We loved the movies we grew up on, which were fun and funny and entertaining but also had more interesting characters and weren't afraid of gravity and reality and darker shades."

As the filmmakers whipped through development, a question lingered. "We kept asking: what genre movie are we making? And the answer was 'a new genre.'" recalls Shauna Cross. "Depending on which part of the script we were working on it was sometimes a coming-of-age sports movie, while other times it was a very intense drama about a mother and daughter in conflict, and other times it was a fun, modern romantic comedy. I think that mix of tones reflects roller derby, because roller derby is about all different worlds coming together. It's this raw, dirty, chaotic realm where the beautiful part is that, no matter what, you get to be yourself." "For all of that, though, WHIP IT is the most unabashedly fun film I've produced," said Mendel. "These women let it all hang out in the way they dress, the flair they bring to the sport and the way they combine self-expression, rock 'n roll and athleticism. People don't know too much about this world, and within a minute of my first night at the track, it spoke to me, I felt honored and privileged to get to make a movie about them. We all did."

Mendel adds: "When Drew produced Charlie's Angels, she took a movie that was fun and also showed women being action heroes in a way we hadn't seen before, very feminine and sexy. Drew represents everything this movie is about: emotion, fun and empowerment, and she threw it all into the film."


The first challenge facing the WHIP IT team was finding an actress who could fill Bliss Cavendar's Reidells. She needed to be smart, offbeat and authentic - but she also needed to be willing and able to whip around a track at fearless speeds. Right from the start, there was just one person who seemed to embody the humor, courage and authenticity of the character: Ellen Page.

"Ellen is such a beautiful creature and has a vulnerability and sexiness that is also tomboyish. I was determined to show every aspect of her as Bliss," says Drew Drew Barrymore. "I didn't want Bliss to be the clich├ę of a geek who becomes a badass by the end or the ugly duckling who turns into a swan. Ellen understood that and you watch her transform very subtly. At the beginning, Ellen gives Bliss a pigeon walk and tentative body language, but by the end she has a different physical possession. You watch her grow from a small-town girl into this rock 'n roll world where she truly fits and flourishes."

Drew Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page chatted long into the night about Bliss, the way two friends might analyze all the trials and tribulations of another. "We talked about the things that start to change her and that empower her, such as the moment she goes from wanting to tell her mother 'I love this' to actually saying it out loud. We both really wanted to get inside not only Bliss's world," explains Drew Barrymore. "We wanted to capture the levity and the complexity of all these different types of relationships Bliss has. Including friendships, teammate camaraderie and first loves."

Before she ever tied up her laces, Ellen Page knew she was in for perhaps the wildest ride of her young career. "This has been one of the craziest journeys I've gone on in a movie," Ellen Page admits, "because it is a mix of different genres and worlds and energies and it seems like every moment is so crucial to Bliss's growth and development. What's great about this film is that it's got this rock n' roll, cool, sporty aspect to it but behind that is an honest story of a young woman going through a lot of changes. The challenge was molding all that together and Drew did it brilliantly, with her high energy and positive spirit."

Playing Bliss was as physical as it was emotional, throwing Ellen Page into a mad pursuit of derby skills. "I am Canadian so I skate," laughs Ellen Page. "But I wasn't good by any means, and my skills definitely had to improve. Everyone had faith and trusted that I would train hard and have that moment when it would all come together." Come together it did as she endured months of rigorous, even perilous, training and then threw herself into the ring, jamming with the Derby Dolls in Los Angeles for real-life practice. "I was absolutely terrified," she says of the experience. "It was like the first day of school. No matter how much I'd practiced, it's a daunting thing to have people wanting to rip your head off while you're doing it! But when you get it, it's such a fantastic feeling."

Ellen Page got further inspired by the big changes that shake up Bliss' life when she first sets eyes on the spectacle of derby - changes that will challenge her to make a tough, but redemptive, bid for her independence by finally telling her mother the truth. "I think Bliss has been trying to figure out a way to be able to express herself comfortably for a long time," observes Ellen Page. "She knows that the beauty pageant scene is not it; she knows she's always been a little bit different; and she knows she does not want to stay in this small town of Bodeen forever. So when she meets these derby girls and sees the way their differences are being celebrated and the way they are so individual yet they all come together, it's a thrill. She's never experienced anything like it. It's the first time she's had a chance to actually like who she is - and that's when she realizes she's going to have to fight to keep this feeling alive."

The spirit of roller derby seems to be just what Bliss is looking for. "I think sometimes when things are cool or hip it can feel contrived, but there's something about the derby world that is very sincere and authentic and that is what's so incredibly exciting to Bliss," says Ellen Page. "Derby is all about passion. Girls who have never played sports before, who were hated in that realm in school, put on the skates and learn how to be empowered women. One of the beautiful things about it is that anybody can become good at it -- if you feel strongly about it."

But Bliss's secret entry into the world of derby is not without consequences. On top of lying to her parents, Bliss finds her very best friend, Pash, slipping away as she moves into this new phase of self discovery. And then, the most unlikely thing of all happens. Bliss falls in love. For Drew Barrymore, Bliss's fast-moving romance with the ultimate foil - a boy in a hot indie band -- was another key to her story. Confesses the director, "I think when you fall in love with someone who has all the cultural and emotional ideals that you do, who loves all the same music and movies, it's easy to lose your footing and just get so wrapped up in it. That's what happens to Bliss, and it raises a lot of questions for her. It's fun and sweeps her off her feet, but then things take a turn and she learns about who she is and what she really wants. I think it's a rite of passage that every girl has to go through."

Ellen Page adored the love story's spectrum of real emotions - the impatience, uncertainty and downright chaos of being knocked down by feelings that don't always make sense. "I like that this story shows two individuals falling for each other in a really authentic way and that it doesn't end up the way you necessarily expect," she says.

By the end of production, Ellen Page was nearly as in love with derby as Bliss. She even began contemplating one of the most important elements of every derby girl's identity: her skate name. While Bliss Cavendar chooses "Babe Ruthless" as a reminder to herself to show no mercy, Ellen Page has her own moniker in mind. "I like 'Hurt Vonnegut' because Vonnegut's one of my favorite authors," she muses. That said, Drew Barrymore chose the derby name 'Small Newman' for Ellen Page and calls her that to this day.


When Bliss Cavendar slips away to Austin to see her first roller derby, it's love at first sight, especially when she meets our hero team - the Hurl Scouts, each one a rough-and-tumble misfit, yet all of them sexy, savvy and seemingly living their offbeat lives to the hilt. Before the skating even begins, Bliss knows she's found a world that's for her.

Casting the vivacious Hurl Scouts, and their equally hardnosed competitors, was a challenging and exciting task for Drew Drew Barrymore, who hand-picked an ensemble of vibrant, funny actors - both veterans and newcomers -- who had a blast with their roles and took on the action with professionalism and enthusiasm.

First she cast Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live", KNOCKED UP) as Maggie Mayhem, the captain of the team who takes Bliss under her wing as a kind of no-holds-barred mentor. "Kristen is amazing and I believe will go down in history as one of our most important female comedians," says Drew Barrymore. "She is both current and timeless, and she perfectly embodies derby femininity. Usually, Kristen does these really broad comic characters but in fact, she's very collected and has a great carefree quality that I wanted to capture in the movie. There are some wonderful scenes between her and Ellen where she becomes a kind of big sister figure to Bliss. On top of that, she skated amazingly."

Next, to play Iron Maven, Bliss's nemesis and the notorious captain of the Hurl Scouts' biggest rivals, The Holy Rollers, Drew Barrymore cast Academy Award« nominee Juliette Lewis. Known for her incredible diversity, Lewis has worked with directors ranging from Martin Scorsese to Woody Allen but was thrilled to join Drew Barrymore for her directing debut. "Juliette ate this role up," says Drew Barrymore. "As a director, I had so much fun working with her because she is game for anything. She is so self-possessed and a crowd pleaser and that's what Iron Maven is. But Iron Maven also has an undercurrent of a quiet longing that Juliette really understood."

Lewis loved her character's ferociously competitive love-hate relationship with Bliss. "It's a classic case of youth versus experience," says Lewis. "Iron Maven is nearing the end of her derby career and she's not about to let this young pup come in and take her throne. And yet, underlying that is the reality that Maven truly admires Bliss because of her youthful exuberance and the hunger she has."

She continues: "I'm not one for playing clich├ęs. I like to do things pretty honest so I tried to give Iron Maven some complications and some humanity. Maven might be the classic bad guy in our tale but she's got a deep love and respect for her opponent."

Lewis, too, became a huge fan of the fictional Bliss, which is a big part of what inspired her to throw herself into the project, bruises and all. "I think Bliss is in all of us," Lewis summarizes. "She's the adolescence we all had, with that fire and yearning for something more. Then she steps into the roller-derby world and channels that rebellion and energy in such a positive way. For her, it's like running away and joining the circus. I think we'd all want to do it if we could."

Meanwhile, as the cast grew, Drew Barrymore herself took on the role of Hurl Scout's Smashley Simpson. "I selfishly wanted to play this character who is a bit of a dichotomy: half-hippie, half-chick-with-anger-issues. I kind of identify with that," she laughs. "There is a part of me that is totally laid back and everything is great. Then there's a part of me that really enjoys action."

Next in line was the multi-platinum Grammy« Award winning singer-actor Eve who was cast as Rosa Sparks. "Eve was perfect for this role," says Drew Barrymore "because she is also a woman who, on her own terms, in her own way, has made a beautiful success of herself. She is a cool, tough chick with a sweet softness. And when she began skating, she was so tentative, it was awesome to watch her grow. With determination and nerve, by the third week she was just crashing into everything!"

Eve says: "What I love about this story it is that it brings a coming-of-age drama and a sports movie and a fun comedy together in a great way. And women's roller derby - how amazing is that?" Still, she admits she had her doubts. "I'm not the most athletic person in the world, so this was a challenge," she says. "But I was surrounded by women with so much personality and determination, you just have to embrace it. You can't be a wuss."

Of all the actors cast in WHIP IT, one would have an advantage when it came to the physical training -- accomplished former stunt woman Zo├ź Bell, who takes on the part of Bloody Holly, a Hurl Scout blocker who knows no fear. Drew Barrymore admits that she stands in awe of Bell. "She surfs, she skates, she rides a motorcycle, she does it all and with total focus and determination. At the same time, she makes it effortless and fun for everyone around her. She was doing cartwheels on roller skates in week two of our training. She is totally the coolest."

Bell, who won three second-place finishes in the New Zealand Gymnastics Nationals as a young girl, related to Bliss's story. "I think many women will identify with these characters' feelings of not quite knowing where you fit in and that sense of relief when you do find your place," she says. "Bliss loves her mom and her best friend, but when you find something you really love in life, there's a real sense of finding a home you didn't know you had. It gives me goose bumps just to talk about it!"

Another Hurl Scouts' rival - Eva Destruction, the Captain of the formidable Black Widows - is played by rising star Ari Graynor, who stars on television's "Fringe" and appeared in AN AMERICAN CRIME with Ellen Page and NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. "I loved this script from the get-go," says Graynor. "It seemed like the most fun you could have. Plus, it's rare to find a movie that has so many strong female roles. The best part for me was the amazing camaraderie. As competitive as derby girls are, they make these incredible friendships."

Also supporting the Hurl Scouts is the lone male presence on the team: their weary, all-too-oft-ignored coach, Brian "Razor" McGee who will never, ever give up on them. To play the role of the short-shorts-sporting voice of inspiration, Drew Barrymore chose Andrew Wilson, with whom she has starred in NEVER BEEN KISSED, FEVER PITCH and both CHARLIES ANGELS films. "Razor sort of reminded me of my dad in the sixties and seventies," explains Drew Barrymore. "I was obsessed with this character and thought of him as the Beach Boys meets my father meets DAZED AND CONFUSED. I've known Andrew for over ten years and I don't like to make a movie without him. He's brilliant at improvisation and he will try anything you throw at him so I knew he would come up with something wonderful."

Wilson was amused by Razor's dilemmas. "The problem for Razor is that he takes roller derby entirely too seriously," says Wilson. "And the girls don't take him half as seriously as he takes himself and that creates trouble! I really get a kick out of my character - which is described at one point as having been 'raised by a pack of wild mullets.' Razor is funny but he's also very passionate."

Another unforgettable presence at the skating arena is the roller derby's sarcastically slick MC, Johnny Rocket, AKA "Hot Tub Johnny," played by comic star Jimmy Fallon, who premiered "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in March and previously co-starred with Drew Barrymore in FEVER PITCH. Says Drew Barrymore, "Hot Tub Johnny stands in the infield of the rink and is your tour guide to derby. Jimmy was perfect for this role. He is a master of improv in the most fun and delicious way."

Fallon says that he had a blast. "It was so much fun being in front of a live audience with an old-fashioned pull-down microphone, calling out the skating action and throwing in some bad jokes," he says. "Meeting the real derby girls was also interesting. Each one of them has her idiosyncrasies but they also have great camaraderie. There's a tight bond and the movie really captures that."

Forging that kind of bond was central to Drew Barrymore's approach. "I think if you create an environment where everyone is in it together, with a sense of fun and inspiration, people will push one another and take risks," says the director. "There was a mix everyday of drama, comedy, emotion and love - all the things we really experience in life - and I hope that's what comes across on film."